John peered through the mesh, his eyes adjusting to the strange glow. At one end of the room beyond, just out of sight, he could hear water running, a wheel creaked as wood and metal groaned a special rhythm. Directly in front of him were rows of cogged wheels. Each possessed a handle, each propelled by pairs of hands, large and small.
“It’s mostly men, to be honest, although every now and again we receive a clutch of young women through the doors. Mostly in the summer, when they get a bit… giddy. “
John shuddered. The conspiratorial leer on The Director’s face made him feel slightly sick – and very uneasy.
“Umm, what do you mean?”
“Now, now, surely you must understand. Nobody really chose to come down here, but then the more determined lot amongst them hadn’t really planned to be doing much of anything… afterwards.”
John watched the relentless up, down, round and round motion of the hands as they drove their wheels, which were attached to long, leather belts that reached high above, disappearing into the gloom.
“But, but, what about me? Where do I fit in? What the hell is this?”
“Mr Andrews! Come, come! You searched us out, you came exploring, you found us. You are truly destined to be here! Now, I do believe that I have the perfect spot to set you up.”
The grip on his upper arm, which had been in evidence ever since ‘The Grand Tour’ began, tightened. John found himself being steered down a long corridor, which became gloomier with each step. The man pushed open a door and shoved John in front of him. The door clanged shut.
He was alone. In the dark. Suffocatingly alone.
“Oh, hey! Are you joining me?”
“Shit! What the -? Who’s there? Where are you?”
“Hey! No! Don’t panic! Look, just hold on a moment.”
The female voice came from somewhere to the left, and John stared into the velvet dark, holding his breath as he held out his hands in both defence and greeting. Must. Not. Panic.
A low glimmer caught his eye and he watched, fascinated as it brightened, spreading across a far wall, like so many multi-coloured stars. Then with a sharp zing, contour lines spread out from the centre, linking each pinprick point of light.
It was beautiful.
“OK. Now – are – you – here – to – help – or – just – gawp?”
John dragged his gaze away, turned to the now eerily illuminated woman pedalling furiously on what looked like a stationary bike. Muscles twitched, the memory of long hours training in the gym igniting his thigh muscles. It had been a long time.
“What is this? What’s going on?”
“Hold – on – just – got – to…”
She broke off, rising out of the seat, crouching over the handlebars, arms bent, focusing on some internal target as she stared into the distance. A large dial sprang into view, its own green luminosity bright and lurid as she pedalled, faster, faster. A single black pointer quivered, slowly but surely swinging from left to right, where the word “FULL” now glowed red. This was her target – her eyes swung from the dial to her rapidly turning feet like a pendulum. John clenched his fists, willing her to reach her goal.
The room shook – her shouts, the noise of a vast bell suspended over their heads, vibrations, the electric buzz from the dial which now throbbed menacingly. John clapped his hands over his ears.
“Thank God for that – I hate, hate, hate that part!” The woman collapsed over the handlebars, gasping, shining with sweat. “Pass me that water!” She pointed with a shaking hand at the bottle on the floor.
John jumped forward, picked it up, unscrewed the lid and passed it across. She gulped, water cascading over her upturned face and down her neck. She tossed the empty bottle to one side and then slid off the bike, onto a mat below. She tapped the space next to her. “Sit.”
He did so.
“OK. So, I guess you’re filling Gabriel’s space then. I’ve been on my own too long.”
“Gabriel? Look, sorry, can you please tell me what’s going on? One minute I’m investigating a local mystery story, the next, I’m here. I’ve got deadlines to meet. Mr – Mr -“
“Oh, him. You’ll never get his name out of him. He’s The Director.”
“But what the hell is going on? Why am I here?”
“Look, you’re a fit looking bloke. Did he grasp you by the arm? Did he ask you to pick up a box or something on the way?”
John felt his skin crawl at the memory of the man’s grip on his tricep and the seemingly subtle request to move a crate blocking their entrance to the lift on the way down from the offices above.
“You’re here to work then. That’s how he got me. Welcome to the most expensive gym in the world.” She smiled wryly. “No monthly direct debit, of course, but there is no way you can ever, ever leave.”
John stared at the second bike fixed next to the one the woman was leaning against. It suddenly bore an ominous significance. The detached empathy he had felt for the ghostly hands turning the cogs suddenly became a lot more personal.
“Oh my God…”
“What brought you here?” The woman cocked her head. He felt scrutinised.
“Oh, I got this weird email – I freelance for a few newspapers – hinting at some revolutionary alternative energy plant that was the next, big thing. It’s supposed solve all the arguments about nuclear and coal, even hydro and wind. It’s such a bloody hot topic, the print papers are really struggling with sales, so The Daily Courant’s editor sent me off to investigate it – it’s going to be a real scoop….”
“Yep, That’s how he got me…”
“I used to freelance, too. I received the same story. That was six months ago of course, Gabriel was on his last legs. I had new ones, so…”
“OK, OK, let’s get this straight, it’s all a lie? What is this place?”
John jumped to his feet, fight or flight confusing his senses. He could feel the blood rushing round his body, draining from his face. So dizzy….
He sank to the floor, the woman helping him down. “Careful, the air isn’t so great down here. You’ll get used to it. We need more power to run the filter system.”
John drank the water she gave to him, slowly. Above them, the needle started to creep from ‘FULL’ to ‘EMPTY’.
“Here’s how it is. Those guys in the main hall – the ones working the cogs – they’re the jumpers.”
“Honey, most of them just don’t mean it, they just want the attention! They want the grand gesture, they want it to be all about them. Yes, I might seem harsh, but really, there’s just no room for sympathy or empathy down here.”
“Oh, OK, some really want to do it – I expect after a time, they really wish they had, but once you’re here, that’s it…”
“But what are they doing?”
“Part of that email is right. The new alternative energy source really does exist. It’s us! We are powering the entire system. Amazing, huh? Just think about it…” Her gaze focused on a point in the distance – she was lost in a vision of clean energy, the next big thing.
John didn’t follow her there. He thought back to last suicide he had reported on, then the one before, and the one before that. His journalist’s brain suddenly made the connection. Back in the day, he had seen the chaotic aftermath, the bloody bandages, swabs, sterile wrappings – the detritus of the desperate attempt to save a life, sometimes won, sometimes lost. Now, there was never any evidence – perhaps an abandoned briefcase, a forgotten shoe – but no mess. It was all a bit – arranged.
He swallowed the rising bile, almost retching at the rancid acidity. His stomach quivered. Take deep breaths, take deep breaths….
“Of course, those lot in there don’t care so much about the bigger picture, the responsibility. The Director doesn’t trust them much, so they’re all wired up. They don’t pedal? They get a little electric shock. They soon learn.”
Her tone was flat, hard.
“So, so what’s your – our – role, where do we fit in? Why aren’t we in there, with them?”
“Oh, honey, this is the next stage, the step up the ladder. It won’t belong before we are powering the entire network. They’re taking us off the National Grid next week. But of course, that means that all this is our responsibility… and such an honour!”
John looked up at the wall once more, his childhood fascination swelling his heart momentarily with a reminiscent joy. But the fanaticism in her voice, in her eyes. It disturbed him.
“We need to be here. We need to keep this grid lit up, let the guys upstairs know what’s moving where. If this fails, the whole network fails – untold disaster. Imagine the carnage! We’re keeping everyone alive up there – or we will be. That’s why we are in here, not in there with the hopeless ones….”
“The hopeless ones…?”
“Look, they wanted to end their miserable lives, and bring the entire network to a halt in the process. They didn’t want to be useful members of society any more. So, the least they can do is give something back. A little bit of therapy for them, if you like?”
“How did they stop them, then?”
“Easy. There are certain favourite spots that the jumpers tend to choose. They just reinforced the rails, created trapdoors underneath and voila – an instant passage to what lies beneath. I can tell you, most of them are quite relieved to be still alive – until they realise what lies ahead for them.”
“What about the other ones – he called them ‘giddy’?”
“Oh, that’s easy – they’re the drunks, the party animals, the types that don’t know when to stop. And they deserve this just as much as the jumpers – bloody idiots.”
John folded his arms, taking a mental step back. She was pretty bitter about something.
“What’s your problem, err…?”
“Maddie – not that it matters. My problem? Oh nothing, except my fiancé is in the large hall with the others – he’s a jumper. And my only friend, Sarah, got completely rat-arsed last year – she was trying to cheer me up, took me out on a pub crawl and got bladdered for the both of us – she’s in there as well. She gets to see him, I don’t. I’d give him a piece of my mind if I bloody well could – coward! He’d wish he’d succeeded by the time I finished with him!”
“Yes, I’m bitter, before you ask. He left a sodding note, explaining he couldn’t live up to my expectations, and even in here, he’s one of the lab-rats whilst I’m elevated to special status. Loser!”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing I can do. We’re not getting out.” She lifted up an arm, brandishing a heavy metal cuff in his face. “You’ll be getting one of these very soon – and then The Director will know exactly where you are, every minute of every day. A life sentence.”
“But what did we do to deserve this?”
“We’re too nosey. We’re journalists. I have no family or other friends to care where I disappeared to. Do you?”
“No. Too busy for friends – you know London these days.”
“And there’s your answer, my friend – pun intended. Nobody’s gonna miss you. Ideal for his purposes – and their’s.”
“Government. This might be a private initiative, but the government is absolutely behind this, make no mistake. That’s what I found out.”
“I’ve got my mobile with me.”
“And? So did I. It doesn’t work down here.”
“Maybe not for calls, although they’ve wired up the whole network for WiFi now. Even in here.”
“What? When? Why?”
“Last couple of months. The bloke, The Director, was bragging that once everything went on stream and they cut off the National Grid, they’d broadcast how much clean power was being generated – live! He’s so proud of it all, he wants to show it off! But anyway, I didn’t hand my phone in when I came through security. I err, kind of forgot.”
Maddie grinned for the first time. “So get emailing, or whatever! Come on!”
“I have a better idea. Let’s file an inside story. Not at the newspapers though…”
‘So, what’s the plan, big shot?”
“Facebook, Twitter, WordPress… I have a blog with thousands of followers. Live picture reports…”
“And when the battery runs out?”
John felt in his jacket pocket. “I’ve got my charger. I reckon I can fix it up to one of the bikes, before he comes back – he is coming back, right?”
“Brilliant. Bloody brilliant. And yes, he’ll be back. He likes to personally check how things are running – he loves this map.”
The woman and the man stared up at the wall, watching the map glow brightly in front of them, mesmerised by the stylish layout of the London Underground network and the little travelling lights, one per train, sliding slowly and calmly along the tube lines.
A transport system first powered by steam, then electricity, now humans.
What a scoop.